What's in a Name? The Business Behind Naming Products and Companies

Vudu. JooJoo. Boorah. It almost seems as if companies are just randomly picking names for their latest product -- or (gasp) the company -- out of a hat. But consumers would be surprised at how much actual thought (and money) go into the process of dubbing a tobacco maker Altria or an instant coffee Via.

"It's probably the most difficult thing that branding firms do," says Hayes Roth, the chief marketing officer of Landor, which is responsible for renaming some of the country's biggest companies. Landor came up with Altria (MO) as the new name for Philip Morris in 2003 when the company sought to improve its crumbling image and get across to customers that it sold more than just tobacco after it acquired Kraft Foods. Agilent (A), the measurement company spun off from Hewlett Packard (HPQ) in 1999, was also a Landor naming creation. "There are many, many hurdles now" to picking a name that will be both "defining and relevant," says Roth.

Does a "Roze" Smell As Sweet?

With the explosion of new technology, products and web sites over the past decade, the challenge has only gotten bigger. "We've all gone brand and name crazy," he says. And finding a name that's not already taken or doesn't violate a trademark has become extremely difficult.

Globalization has presented another hurdle: companies now must avoid choosing names that will translate into something inappropriate in other languages. Take, for example, Buick's LaCrosse. While a perfectly respectable name in English, in French-Canadian slang it's a term for masturbation. The company swiftly renamed the model "Allure" in 2003 for Canadian buyers (although last year the company said it would switch back to using the LaCrosse name in Canada to leverage its U.S. marketing campaign across the border.)

That may help explain why consumers are encountering new brand names that tweak common words with misspellings, such as Flickr or the SyFy network, or dip into languages far afield from the more familiar Latin- and Greek-based names. When Fusion Garage decided to rename its Internet tablet(it was developed as the CrunchPad by TechCrunch, and the two companies are now in litigation), it turned to JooJoo, an African word meaning magical. Names that roll off the tongue have also surged in popularity, such as Via, the instant coffee introduced by Starbucks (SBUX) last year (and which taps into the Latin word for road.) Boorah, a restaurant guide, picked a name that sounds like Todd a cheer, while movie-downloading service Vudu uses a misspelling to evoke another word with magical connotations.

"There is alot of movement to have names that are easy to say with lots of vowels," says Paola Norambuena, head of verbal identity for branding company Interbrand in New York. "They feel very international."

Creating the Ultimate Name

Finding that perfect name is a process that can last up to six months, Roth says. Clients typically have one of two objectives: either finding a name for a new product, or finding a new name for an existing company or good. In the latter case, a company may be seeking a new name to repair its image.Remember ValuJet? The company decided to rebrand itself as AirTran (AAI) after the crash of ValuJet flight 592rattled consumer's confidence in the low-cost airline.

Branding extends beyond the corporate world, too. The U.S. government plans to rename Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Day come Sept. 1. The reason? "Aligning the name change with the change of mission sends a strong signal that Operation Iraqi Freedom has ended and our forces are operating under a new mission," wrote Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a memo last month.

After defining the client's mission, a branding company will generate a list of anywhere from 600 to 3,000 potential names, Norambuena says. Interbrand employs 20 people, ranging from trademark analysts, linguists and writers, who work on brainstorming to find the perfect name, she adds. About half of those names can be immediately dismissed because of trademark or usage problems. "We need to check we make sure we don't alienate any people or are setting it up for ridicule," she says. Eventually, Interbrand will recommend between eight to 12 names to a client.

"We say, 'Don't fall in love with any of them'," Roth says. From a shortlist of 10 names, eight of them might drop out of contention, possibly because another company has registered the name.

On a Wii and a Prayer

Of course, there's always a risk that name won't exactly click with customers. Take Wii, for example, which Interbrand helped craft for Nintendo. While Wii sounds like "we" or the word meaning "small," it also sounds like something usually not talked about in polite company. "It's not a negative name, but if the product had been remotely bad, the name would have endured endless ridicule," says Norambuena. "But the product came out, and everyone loved it and then people said what a great name it is."

Other names are more immediately descriptive, such as Bing, Microsoft's search engine. "It was the idea of a light bulb coming on or a microwave going off," says Norambuena, who worked on the name for Microsoft. Descriptive words can help differentiate the product and develop clarity in consumers' minds about what the product does, she says.

"Everyone has something in mind that will be some sort of magical name," like Apple Computer, a brand that stands for innovation and creativity with consumers, Landor's Roth says."But people forget that it means nothing. It means a fruit. Names are truly empty vessels until they become invested in."

That investment can also backfire. If a brand becomes so widely used that the product's name becomes a generic term, there's a risk that the name might lose its trademark. Consumers talk about TiVo-ing programs, even if they're using digital-video recorders from other companies, or putting on Band-Aids when they mean any type of adhesive bandage.

""Now you hear the "Band-Aid brand'," instead of just 'Band-Aid' from maker Johnson & Johnson, says Norambuena. "We were pleased that Bing could be used as a noun or verb, but we're very cautious and instructed our clients to be cautious."